Transparency Talk

Category: "Networks" (16 posts)

The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age
May 10, 2017

(Daniel Matz is manager and content developer for Foundation Center’s Glasspockets.org portal. This review was first published in Philanthropy News Digest.)

Daniel X MatzThe mega-wealthy have long been celebrated in American culture. Even in the first Gilded Age, when the likes of Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller, and Sage were scorned as robber barons, their wealth — and power — were much admired. In their time, these titans of America's burgeoning industrial might determined the economic destiny of millions and set the course of the nation. And their philanthropy — more than a century on — continues to echo with all the force that money can buy.

Today, as we celebrate the dynamos of a new gilded age — their fortunes, in many cases, made younger, growing faster, moving at the speed of light — we're witnessing a second philanthropic boom. And that seemingly inexhaustible river of "private wealth for public good" brings with it the ideas and voices of those who, having made vast fortunes, are now determined to put that money to use. How society responds to and channels that torrent of money while making sure the ideas it funds best serve the interests of the American people is of broad concern.

“Giving by the mega-wealthy is going to be bigger, more sophisticated, and more focused on influencing public policy debates.”

In The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age, David Callahan gives us a grand tour of the philanthropic landscape in the opening decades of the twenty-first century while opening a window on how today's economic winners — having proved themselves in business — are eyeing philanthropy as the ultimate opportunity to convert wealth into power. But where a Matthew Josephson might have distrusted such a development, in Callahan's telling, these masters of the universe are thoughtful, broad-minded, and, yes, even likable. He's not interested in taking them down, criticizing their often rapacious business practices, or pointing out the role played by fiscal and tax policy in cementing their status as the .01 percent. Instead, his is a book about the giving away, not the getting, of great wealth.

Founding editor of the Inside Philanthropy website, a founder of public policy think tank Demos, and a former fellow at the Century Foundation, Callahan has a reputation as a keen observer of philanthropy and civil society and it serves him well here. Not only does he know his subject, he's also interviewed many of the people in his book — Priscilla Chan, Eli Broad, Melinda Gates, and John Arnold, to name a few — and is able to support his own judgments with their words. And what both he and they see is a future in which giving by the mega-wealthy is going to be bigger, more sophisticated, and more focused on influencing public policy debates.

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Of course, many of today's mega-wealthy, people like Warren Buffett and Michael Bloomberg, have indicated they have little interest in leaving much of their wealth behind. (In a recent 60 Minutes interview, Bloomberg joked with correspondent Steve Croft about "a guy on his death bed in a hospital with the rails around and his family looking down like vultures. And he looks up and says, 'I know I can't take it with me, but I can take the access code'.") Indeed, in the next decade alone, some $740 billion is likely to be distributed in the form of private philanthropy. And if the Giving Pledge — the Buffett and Gates effort to encourage the uber-rich to commit the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes — is any gauge, we could see another trillion dollars in private wealth making its way to nonprofit organizations and causes over the lifetimes of the 158 current "pledgers" who have signed on. (Learn more about that campaign and its signatories at the Foundation Center's Eye on the Giving Pledge feature.) How all that money will be used over the coming decades is what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld might call a known unknown, but it undoubtedly will have important and lasting effects, and that — as well as who will decide what its impact might be — is at the center of Callahan's inquiry.

In the book, Callahan examines the collision of two fundamental American values — freedom and equality — and how the wealthiest Americans have been able to leverage their money (for better or worse) to gain advantage in the marketplace of ideas. Sure, money in politics is as American as apple pie: for proof, look no further than the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United, the flood of cash swirling around political campaigns, and K Street lobbyists and super PACs. But much less is heard about the ways in which the mega-wealthy are using their philanthropy to influence public policy and (intentionally or not) drown out the voices of average Americans. We're not talking about eight-figure gifts for museums and the like; we're talking about philanthropy that shapes national agendas and priorities and promotes policies that affect Americans where they live — from promoting school vouchers, to hobbling the Johnson Amendment, to pushing for repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

It's one thing, for instance, for the average American to make a $100 donation to a cause she believes in, and it's certainly noteworthy when a wealthy donor trumps that with a gift a hundred thousand times larger; it's something else entirely when a donor puts up the money for a think tank to develop a public policy recommendation, hire researchers to provide intellectual cover for the policy, and disseminate the results through a report and a media campaign. The Brookings Institute has been around since the 1910s, the American Enterprise Institute since the 1930s, the Heritage Foundation since the 1970s. All are tax exempt, and all have been the beneficiaries of substantial philanthropic largesse over the years. What's different in 2017 is the full-throttled way in which such bounty has become another weapon in the ideological clash that defines our time: Left vs. Right, liberal vs. conservative, cosmopolitan vs. populist. What we are seeing, Callahan notes, is the mega-wealthy using their philanthropic dollars to define the terms of the debate and dominate the public square in areas and on issues that a generation ago were the purview of academics, technocrats, and policy makers.

The Givers - Book JacketSome might argue that this isn't necessarily a bad thing, and Callahan is quick to note that the mega-wealthy have no agreed-to set of interests and, as a group, are as ideologically and politically pluralistic as the country itself. If at times they can seem like gods throwing thunderbolts at one another, the diversity of ideas and approaches they represent seems to balance out: for every wealthy advocate of school vouchers and charter schools, there's an equally wealthy and committed advocate eager to double down on public education.

In a perfect world where government is more or less trusted to do the right thing, that might be okay, argues Callahan. But in an era of widening inequality and growing political polarization (exacerbated by our addiction to social media), government and traditional institutions are losing their ability to absorb those thunderbolts and forge compromises that satisfy the majority of Americans. It's not that the public square is empty; it's that the platforms from which the plural voices of American democracy typically are heard have been roped off and posted with "Do Not Enter" signs. For Callahan, it's no coincidence that the outsized influence on public policy of the mega-wealthy comes just at the moment when both institutional and government effectiveness appear to be in terminal decline.

With a nod to French economist Thomas Piketty, Callahan sees this decline as a by-product of mounting economic anxiety, driving broad disaffection with both major political parties and a loss of faith in the ability of government to materially affect the lives of those who have lost their livelihoods to globalization, automation, and de-industrialization. Into that vacuum has stepped the wealthy, with states and local governments increasingly looking to foundations and nonprofits to join forces in public/private partnership, and fund everything from education initiatives to homeless services to public parks. Every time a philanthropist gives $100 million to bankroll a new reform effort in a struggling school district, or convinces a city to spend a portion of its parks budget on a whimsical project, or provides millions for a campaign to convince the public to support/oppose an international climate agreement, writes Callahan, we are seeing a new kind of philanthropy in action. And there's no reason to believe the trend won't continue, or that it won't happen in ways largely beyond the ability of the public to control.

As much as The Givers pulls back the curtain on this reality, it's also a call to change how philanthropy in America is regulated. Readers of Callahan's posts on Inside Philanthropy will not be surprised by his prescriptions — chief among them a call for greater transparency and accountability in the sector (principles Foundation Center has long championed through our Glasspockets initiative). Here, though, Callahan has something more specific in mind: changing the rules to require wealthy individual donors, donor-advised funds, private foundations, and nonprofits to disclose more information about their giving, more quickly. He also calls for the creation of an independent Federal Reserve-style commission to oversee the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors; the establishment of formal metrics to assess charities' effectiveness; and for the IRS to be given more resources — and greater latitude — to audit more than the tiny fraction of nonprofits and foundations it currently reviews. Callahan also favors limiting the tax-deductibility of contributions to nonprofits that are not working to alleviate poverty or address other urgent social problems, and he wants to see foundation boards be more independent and representative of the communities they are charged with serving.

For Callahan, these are small changes — a somewhat Pollyannaish take that seems to ignore our current political climate and the treasured prerogatives of many large, important foundations and nonprofits. Yes, philanthropy needs more transparency and accountability, it probably needs new rules, and the public needs more and better information about how foundations and individual donors are spending their tax-advantaged resources.

But we also need to find the will, and a way, to restore the public square to something like its imagined heyday so that the voices of the rich and powerful are not the only ones heard in statehouses and the halls of Congress. As Callahan puts it, Alexis de Tocqueville didn't esteem America for its robust nonprofit sector; he admired it for its egalitarian ideals. Nurturing and sustaining those ideas over the coming decades should be something we can all agree on.

-- Daniel Matz

Open Yourself Up to New Solutions
April 5, 2017

SAVE THE DATE: April 13, 1:30-3:00 p.m. EST.  Like this blog series?  Attend our Inside Innovation Funding event in person in San Francisco, or virtually via livestream in San Francisco.

(Christie George is the director of New Media Ventures, a mission-driven venture firm and donor collaborative supporting progressive startups.  New Media Ventures supports companies and organizations that – through the use of new media and technology – build advocacy movements, tell new stories and drive civic engagement.)

This post is part of the Funding Innovation series, produced by Foundation Center's Glasspockets and GrantCraft, and underwritten by the Vodafone Foundation.  The series explores funding practices and trends at the intersection of problem-solving, technology, and design. Please contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #fundinginnovation. View more posts in the series.

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If you’ve been following the headlines since the 2016 election, you’ve probably thought about the growing polarization in our country. You may share my worry about filter bubbles and political echo chambers, or you might have recommitted to sparking conversations with friends across the aisle. At New Media Ventures (NMV), we see the same need in the funding world. From our perspective, most people fund people and organizations they already know, moving money through referrals and established networks. But if we’re going to solve the big problems facing our world, we need to move beyond our personal echo chambers.

As a mission-driven venture fund that invests in both for-profit and nonprofit startups, NMV stands with one foot in the venture capital world and one foot in philanthropy – driving change at the intersection of technology, media, and civic engagement. When we first got started, we found ourselves sourcing opportunities in all the traditional ways – using our personal networks and attending conferences – but we quickly realized that we needed to try something different to ensure that we were actually identifying new approaches to the problems we wanted to solve. In 2014, we launched the NMV Innovation Fund with two main goals: 1) increase the number of investable projects crossing our desks (our deal flow); and 2) break through the bias for “the usual suspects” to fund more diverse entrepreneurs.

In the simplest terms, the Innovation Fund is an open call for world-changing innovations. Twice a year, we ask our network, and our network’s network, and their networks (you get the idea: we cast a wide net) to send us the best opportunities they’ve seen for how technology can catalyze progressive change. This year, in response to our “Resist and Rebuild” Open Call, we received nearly 500 applications – a new record – and we are blown away by the creativity of the applicants.

“...If you haven’t tried an open call, you might be missing out on amazing solutions beyond the usual suspects.”

While it may sound overwhelming to sort through hundreds of applications, we have developed a methodology for doing this work efficiently.  This process includes recruiting a volunteer screening committee of funding peers, simplifying our application as much as possible, asking more detailed questions only to the applicants who rise to the top, and using a technology platform to easily manage all of the applications in one batch. Ultimately, New Media Ventures makes the final funding decision, but the screening committee is one of the most powerful aspects of the process – many heads are better than one – and working collaboratively with other funders allows us to leverage different domain expertise in evaluating opportunities. 

Here are two takeaways from our experience opening ourselves up to open calls, and the reasons why we hope other funders will consider similar approaches:

1) Big problems require new solutions (and diversity is not a “nice to have”). Funding exclusively through referrals can limit what funders see and increase the risk of confirmation bias – one of the reasons white men are so much more likely to get venture capital funding in Silicon Valley. By having an open and transparent application process, heavily marketed to ensure we’re getting outside our own bubbles, we’ve made a tremendous
impact on the diversity of our portfolio. Our website, blog, social media platforms, and partners broadcast details about the open call, allowing us to
reach new audiences who may be deterred by less transparent philanthropic opportunities. We’re proud that 65% of Innovation Fund applicants have New Media Ventures logoat least one female and/or trans founder, and 30% have at least one person of color on the founding team. We still have a long way to go, but by comparison 8% of venture capital goes to women founders and 13% to founders of color.

However, focusing on diversity is not a “nice to have” and it’s not just about the numbers – it’s a core part of our strategy. Our societies and systems are facing entrenched problems, and solving them will require new and bold solutions. We need all hands on deck. Women, trans people, and leaders of color have much-needed perspectives and expertise, but often lack access to capital, networks, and traditional philanthropy. For example, news platform Blavity, founded by a young black woman, has grown to reach 7 million readers by creatively combining pop culture content with thoughtful coverage of race and gender issues. We might never have identified this opportunity were it not for our open call.

2) Less control over outcomes leads to more welcome surprises. When funders issue a request for proposals (RFP), we essentially define the terms of the discussion: we’ve often developed a strategy, and we’re looking for organizations to execute that strategy. Unlike a traditional RFP, the Innovation Fund Open Call process has very broad parameters by design. We’ve found this requires us to be comfortable with uncertainty and develop the humility to stay in a learning mindset. The approach isn’t without risks. What if you open the gates for a broad range of applicants, and don’t find anything you want to fund? What if you keep your parameters flexible and only get applications that aren’t in your wheelhouse? But with careful planning and a good process, we have developed strategies to mitigate the risks, and find we gain real value from being able to scan the field and identify gaps as well as opportunities. It has paid off in delightful and unexpected ways.

For many of our portfolio organizations, NMV is their first institutional funder, and our early investment gives our grantees the validation and runway they need to go on to great things: CoWorker.org hosted the Summit on Worker Voice with President Obama; Blavity went on to participate in 500 Startups; Vote.org got into Y Combinator and scaled up quickly to send SMS voting reminder messages to more than 1 million people in swing states leading up to the election. And that’s just a few examples.

To sum it up, if you haven’t tried an open call, you might be missing out on amazing solutions beyond the usual suspects. If boosting innovation is one of your goals, we recommend starting small and collaborating with others to share the work. Consider carving out a portion of your grantmaking budget to fund projects selected through an open process, and remember that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. NMV and other similar groups have developed deep expertise around open calls and we’re excited to partner with other funders. In fact, we did just that when we worked with the Pluribus Project on a democracy-focused open call last year.

So go ahead, open up and let yourself be surprised. It worked for us.

--Christie George

 

Soulful Innovation: Increasing Diverse Tech Entrepreneurship
February 22, 2017

SAVE THE DATE: April 13, 1:30-3:00 p.m. EST.  Like this blog series?  Attend our Look Inside Innovation Funding event in person or via livestream in San Francisco.  More details and registration info coming in March.

C-Brown-Photo(Cedric Brown has been a leader in philanthropy and the civil society sector for nearly two decades. He is currently the Chief of Community Engagement at the Kapor Center for Social Impact, in Oakland, California. The Kapor Center won the 2017 Crunchies Social Impact Award.)

This post is part of the Funding Innovation series, produced by Foundation Center's Glasspockets and GrantCraft, and underwritten by the Vodafone Americas Foundation. The series explores funding practices and trends at the intersection of problem-solving, technology, and design. Please contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #fundinginnovation. View more posts in the series

Frankly, I get tired of talking about innovation. Sometimes discussions about innovation come across as Sisyphean pursuits, where style is greater than substance, and preening is greater than practice. I’m looking for conversations about innovation with soul. With gravitas. With a conscience. Ones that advance uplifting solutions that make this Earth more habitable or help more people meet their hierarchy of needs (or as of late, that strengthen the fast-unraveling social contract necessary for humankind to co-exist).

Three years ago at the behest of our benefactors, the then-Kapor Foundation began to explore how to move away from our traditional responsive grantmaking. The benefactors had begun to invest in seed-staged tech startups that aim to address and mitigate equality gaps. They witnessed the power of designing solutions for markets - "communities" - that operate at scale. They saw how different and disruptive ways of approaching problem solving can create a culture shift. They came to us, the foundation staff, and requested that we start thinking about this intersection of tech-for-good and our grantmaking work.

“Are we overlooking the resourcefulness that resides in the 'hood, favela, sticks, and bush?”

In the ensuing years, we experimented with different approaches, borrowing from our new knowledge of Lean Startup principles. Through a clunky, iterative learning process - which in hindsight I would like to label as our R&D - we decided to lead the way by doing our part to expand access to the tech sector and innovation economy.

Van Jones has shared that his dear friend Prince said we need to create a "Black Zuckerberg." While I take issue with that particular mold (pattern recognition and Ivy league degree-as-entry-barrier are part of tech's diversity problem), I get The Purple One's point, echoed by Mitch Kapor: "Genius is evenly distributed across zip codes, but opportunity is not." Working with a variety of partners in this ecosystem, we seek to plug leaks in the tech talent pipeline while sharpening the skills and talents that reside in all of our diverse communities.

To this point, I’ve judged a number of youth hackathons and design sessions, mostly attended by low-income, “low opportunity,” or similarly-labeled young people. These youth are participating in these activities as an initial exposure to tech skill-building and careers, and I am consistently impressed by how these young teams create apps that address information and resource gaps: student loan payment platforms; mentoring matching; anonymous bully identification; and safe passage routing among them.  

Our premise is that as the high-tech industry becomes more inclusive, companies and teams will become better at problem solving, will create better products and solutions that serve a wider market, and will utilize tech-driven platforms to solve pressing problems that are informed by their lived experiences. Our backup? Heavy hitters like  McKinsey, Catalyst, Kellogg and Stanford have found this to be true.

How are we benefiting from the terrific brainpower, scrappiness, and necessity - as the mother of invention - that resides in nonprofit leaders, in low-income communities, with people who are "making a way out of no way" as my church folks used to say?  Are we overlooking the resourcefulness that resides in the 'hood, favela, sticks, bush?

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You've heard these questions before, I'm sure. So what are we doing about it?

We're catalyzing and strengthening tech innovation, in line with the theme of this blog, by introducing and preparing more people to lead its creation. Tech shouldn't be an insular economy; now more than ever, we need thinkers, tinkerers, designers, and dreamers who are motivated by the pursuit of a significantly positive impact rather than a sinfully profitable buyout.

In 2017, the Kapor Center - including our sibling organizations, Kapor Capital and Level Playing Field Institute - are committed to increasing diverse tech entrepreneurship, access to capital, access to tech and STEM education, and building strong community institutions to promote a more diverse tech ecosystem in the Bay Area, with a special focus on Oakland, our home.

We’re employing a range of old tools for new outcomes - convening key partners to coordinate around systems-level goals (kind of collective impact-ish), providing financial support to select roundtables to support this coordination work, and utilizing the visibility of our benefactors and brand to raise awareness about the issues at hand and to channel resources to efforts aligned with our work, helping to create a larger, stronger network of collaborators. And we’re using our brand-spankin’ new building on Oakland’s Broadway corridor to host events that welcome, validate, leverage, and enrich diverse talent - namely people of color and women - as they pursue their entrepreneurship, technical, and impact goals. We see this work as a powerful overlay between the ubiquity of tech, the possibility of entrepreneurship, the integrity of fairness, and the necessity of economic mobility and empowerment for a just society.

But back to the issue at hand - innovation. I think that soulful, meaningful, conscientious innovation is rooted in a nagging question: “What can we do to be more effective?” It’s organic; a quest to find the bull’s eye of effectiveness en route to real impact. It requires experimentation, evolution, and even a bit of envy - as a competitive motivator to be top of class, of course. And while so many of these variables are present in innovation economy practitioners, I’d like to see them more firmly rooted in addressing real world issues informed by and for real people.

--Cedric Brown

The 30-Layer Cake of Grants Management
November 11, 2015

(Adriana Jimenez is grants manager at the Surdna Foundation and also serves on the board of directors of the Grants Managers Network.  She will be a regular contributor to Transparency Talk, discussing issues pertaining to transparency, data, and grants management.)

AjimenezReality TV is not all mind-numbing. I recently discovered a baking show that had lessons to teach about working in the evolving world of grants management. 

In PBS’s The Great British Baking Show, contestants test different recipes to showcase their baking talents. One of the top challenges on the show was preparing a cake with 30 perfectly distinctive layers. This was the ultimate feat because it would expose the mastery of the bakers’ technical skills.

While the bakers relied primarily on precision and rules to pass this 30-layer trial and other “technical challenges,” the winning bakers also demonstrated “soft” skills: they were creative, flexible, and collaborative; they worked well under pressure; and they knew when to ditch tradition and take a risk when the conditions demanded it. These are precisely the skills that today’s -- and tomorrow’s -- grants managers need to thrive in a changing environment.

This was not too different from the advice I’d heard at a recent Grants Managers Network (GMN) program, Become the Grants Manager of the Future: be flexible and open; be a chief problem-solver and a team-player; and understand the rules so you know when to break them. Grants management, like baking, requires precision, measurement and technique, but it also requires creativity, adaptability, and nimbleness.

Led by Sara Davis, director of grants management at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and Daniel Weinzveg, an organizational consultant, Become the Grants Manager of the Future addresses the growing hunger (pardon the food pun) among grants managers to get clarity on where the profession is headed and how we can collaborate to increase our impact in the philanthropic sector.  The program captures the excitement around these new opportunities.

Grants management, like baking, requires precision, measurement and technique, but it also requires creativity, adaptability, and nimbleness.

One of the session’s key points is that by connecting grants managers’ expertise in the “how” of grantmaking with the strategic side of grant practice, we can create frameworks that lead to greater transparency in order to support learning and collaboration. Operations can no longer be siloed from strategy, because transparency is the new norm.

In fact, there are many “new norms.”

The profession of grants management is rapidly evolving. The transactional elements of grants administration (e.g., processing grant requests, getting grantees paid, assembling board books) have always existed, and will remain critical to grantmaking organizations. 

However, over the past decade technology has automated many of these processes. According to the 2014 GMN/Technology Affinity Group survey, 65 percent of foundations now manage some level of paperless grant systems. This has opened up opportunities for grants management professionals to shift into more strategic roles and collaborate more closely with program staff and leadership. 

Grants management has also shifted as organizations have become more data-driven. Foundations now have access to vast amounts of information, and they are relying on grants managers to help them make sense of it.

Grants managers play a central role in collecting key data sets and trends about our grant portfolios over time, such as: demographic information about grantees and constituents served; outcomes, activities and indicators of success; statistics about average grant size/duration; geographic areas served; etc. We can also gather baselines about our internal processes to gauge efficiencies and stopgaps (e.g. turn-around time for making a grant, processing a payment, or reviewing a letter of inquiry).

As we become the grants managers of the future, what should foundations of the future look like?

Access to the right data – and knowing how to interpret it—can help foundations make informed decisions that lead to better outcomes in service of mission and grantees. It can help us set policies and procedures that are based on real needs and not arbitrary rules; it can support us in learning about our portfolios and making strategic course-corrections where needed;  and it can aid us in becoming more transparent about our work and measuring progress towards our stated goals.  We can also use benchmarks, such as Who Has Glass Pockets, to help in this endeavor.

The 2015 GMN Salary Survey found that grants management professionals spend only 42 percent of their time on “core” grants management functions.  Other job responsibilities include IT, evaluation, legal counsel, finance or working within grant programs.

The multi-functional nature of grants management provides an opportunity for transparency, as grants management professionals often act as a liaison between multiple areas of foundation work.  

Meanwhile, this disparity presents a challenge: Are grants managers properly trained to step into leadership roles as data analyst experts and decision-makers? Do we all aspire to be?  Is there an obstacle among foundations who do not recognize this potential in their grants management staff? How can they support grants management in their professional growth?

So, as we become the grants managers of the future, what should foundations of the future look like? From a strategic standpoint, philanthropy leaders have many questions to address if they want to foster a data-driven and learning-based culture:

  • How can foundations leverage their existing data to make informed strategic decisions?
  • What frameworks can be put in place to integrate grants management as key contributors to foundation learning, analysis, and decision-making in order to benefit the foundations themselves and the grantees they support?
  • How can foundations incorporate effective practices into their strategic grantmaking?

Answering these questions is not an easy feat, but neither was baking a 30-layer cake on The Great British Baking Show.

--Adriana Jimenez

Glasspockets Find: The Gates Foundation Joins the International Aid Transparency Initiative
October 16, 2013

(Rebecca Herman is Special Projects Associate for Glasspockets at the Foundation Center-San Francisco.)

Gates-image-wall-crop2The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has become the latest organization to join the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), signaling their intention to publish open data on their global development activities. IATI, launched five years ago in Accra, Ghana, aims to make information about aid spending easier to find, use and compare.

"At the end of the day, our goal is the same: to identify common ways we all can share information that will help the development community achieve greater impact."

In his blog post about the announcement—“Information Sharing for Impact”—Gates Foundation CEO Jeff Raikes commented, “To figure out our approach to sharing information, we have taken lessons from what governments and other nonprofits are doing well, while considering the unique aspects of operating a foundation. At the end of the day, our goal is the same: to identify common ways we all can share information that will help the development community achieve greater impact.”

IATI has brought together donors, developing country governments, civil society and aid information experts to agree on a common, open, international standard for publishing more, and better, information about aid. The public can search and download data from the IATI Data Registry, which includes raw data from 189 organizations and counting.

If you’re not ready for IATI’s raw data, you can check out Open Aid Search, a simple search and browsing interface; or Aid View, a prototype visual interface to browse aid activities by donor, country and sector.

The Gates Foundation is one of the first private foundations to become a member of IATI, joining The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in increasing transparency through this global initiative.

-- Rebecca Herman

 

Social Media, So What? RWJF Tackles How to Answer the Social Media, So What Question
April 17, 2013

Debra Joy Perez (@djoyperez) is currently serving as Interim Vice President of Research and Evaluation at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Perez-100Last year, after Steve Downs shared an overview of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) social media strategy, we hosted a series of interviews with RWJF staff members about how social media, and more broadly, the transparency and participation they offer, are adding new and critical dimensions to their work. The first case study on social networking as a learning tool is available here. The second on experimenting with different social mediums to serve as a catalyst for collaboration is available here. The third on leveraging social media to expand networks is available here.

The latest post offers perspective on how the use of these tools—which have become essential to our communication efforts—can be measured to reflect the impact of our work and rooted in a context of achieving social change goals.

Q: Let’s start with a glimpse into a day in the life of your work at the Foundation in light of all these new technologies. Why are metrics important to RWJF?
A: RWJF has a 40 year history of developing evidence-based programming. We are known for our research and evaluation work nationally and internationally. Yet, as new ways to advance our goals in health and health care become more reliant on technology, we struggle with measuring success and accountability.

Since 2009, RWJF has been incorporating Web 2.0 technology in our everyday work. That is what people who visit our website  can see since our September redesign, as we have more social sharing facilitation tools across the site. We also invite conversation about how to advance health and health care on Twitter, Facebook, and produce content that can serve the needs of various online communities.

We can clearly see and have made projections about the future value of social media. Social media can help us create social change and build movements around the causes that we care deeply about. We have learned many key lessons from initiating this work guided by our principles of openness, participation, and decentralization. Specific lessons include:

  • Personal outreach matters;
  • Responsiveness to requests for engagement is important;
  • Criticism can lead to healthy dialogue;
  • Make engagement easy and simple; and
  • Engagement takes work and dedicated resources.

These take homes suggest that each of these principles requires concerted efforts and conversations about policies and processes for achieving the intended goals. With each social media campaign, we must be explicit about expectations. Social media metrics is an essential part of our efforts at RWJF. We need measurement to help us achieve those expectations. Measurement also helps us continually improve our use of social media to achieve our broader social change goals.

Social media is another tool to achieve larger goals. While it can be a very powerful tool, it should not be mistaken for an end in itself.

Q: What does an effective and efficient social media campaign look like?
A: So where do you start: well, you might start first with acknowledging what you are already doing in social media and celebrating that. Do you have a Facebook page, an organizational presence on Twitter, operations on Tumblr? Conduct an inventory of what you are doing as an organization, as well as the engagement by individuals. Do staff leverage social media for their job, how have they been able to extend their reach, do we regularly appear on relevant blogs?

As you do this, you might start to recognize how much you don’t know. BUT don’t let the “not-knowing” stop you.

  • Have an explicit dialogue about your goals, what are you trying to accomplish with your social media efforts, e.g. what is the purpose of tweeting something, what is the action you want an individual to take? Although click-through is not itself an outcome, in my view, it is a process measure. 
  • Identify your networks. You probably already have more of a network than you recognize (see The Networked Nonprofit  by Kanter).
  • Schedule a formal discussion about value proposition in-house. Talk to who does it now and who doesn’t. Don’t expect everyone to Tweet. Some are better long-form writers and therefore might be better suited for blogging.
  • Establish data points for measuring impact of what you do.
  • Provide unique URLs for product releases and then test URL placements against each other (AB testing) to see which one is more effective.

Ultimately, discuss to what end are you using social media. Social media is another tool to achieve larger goals. While it can be a very powerful tool, it should not be mistaken for an end in itself.

Q: What is the expected ROI for social media?
A: We believe social media can have a profound effect on expanding our reach, as more people are building trusted networks of individuals and organizations and engaging online. Appropriate use of social media channels help us provide the right information and the right tools into the hands of our health and health care advocates (also known as message evangelists). You then start to see how making data accessible in new ways, such as interactives, data visualizations, and infographics, enables us to illustrate key points for case-making and building awareness.  

Because social media is a vehicle through which ideas can be generated, tested, built upon, and spread, we believe that this is worth measuring. However, while there is a plethora of ready to use analytical tools crowding the market, the challenge will be to avoid the “low-hanging fruit” trap of measuring activity over action. If we do our job correctly, we will be able to say what works and what doesn’t using social media metrics, as well as distinguishing online from offline impact.

Q: What is the current state of the field for measuring social media? Where do we go from here?
A: The potential power of social is undeniable and we are looking for ways to continue to test our assumptions about what we are producing. For example, by watching others comment on Twitter about our work we not only have a better sense of how we are being understood, it also serves as a kind of content analysis of the impact we are having. By monitoring a recurring Twitter chat, we can hear whether our meaning and intention is influencing the discussion in the way we desire it to.

As the unit responsible for measuring the impact of our work, we regularly ask ourselves: What are we using social media for? Who are our target audiences (segmented, as well as aggregated)? (The ability to diversify our networks is a huge value to RWJF; developing metrics that includes demographics of our audiences is an important part of the measurement effort.) What is the expected action/behavior we wish to see? How do we measure behavior change? How can we best go beyond measuring online activity (page views, unique visitors, tweets, and re-tweets) to measuring offline action and policy change? This is the key challenge for philanthropy today: assessing an effective and efficient social media campaign. As a foundation, accountable to our Board and the public, we must have standards for our investments in social media just as we do for our programmatic investments. We ought to be able to answer the so-what question for investing staff time and talent in social media campaigning. As a sector, we are becoming much more sophisticated in our use of communications to advance our work. Looking at ways to measure social media should fit within the framework of measuring communications broadly. Even as the task of identifying communications indicators is challenging, social media lends itself well to being more precise and thus measurable.

In order to engage the field in a dialogue on social media measurement, RWJF is hosting a national convening of experts in three domains: evaluation, communications, and social media. The April convening will produce a set of indicators on five Foundation-focused outcomes:

1. Our foundation is viewed as a valuable information source.

2. Our foundation is viewed as transparent.

3. Lessons are disseminated, multiplying impact beyond our foundation’s reach.

4. Public knowledge, advocacy, influence, and action is increased in strategic areas

5. Our networks strengthen and diversify.

We invite you to help us advance the field of social media measurement. Please follow hashtag #SM_RE on Twitter for conversations stemming from the social media measurement meeting this month, including a live Twitter chat on April 18, 3 p.m. EDT, as we continue to move the field forward in using data to evaluate and assess impact of our work.

-- Debra Joy Perez

Using Social Media to Expand Networks: A Q&A with Susan Promislo
September 27, 2012

Susan Promislo  is Senior Communications Officer for the Vulnerable Populations Portfolio at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Promislo_100At the start of the year, Steve Downs kicked off our Transparency Talk blog with a great overview of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) social media strategy and how it has evolved since their early adoption and experimentation stage two years ago. Given the many questions grant makers have about developing and accessing social media efforts, we are continuing to learn from the road the RWJF staff has traveled by offering a series of interviews with staff members about how social media, and more broadly, the transparency and participation they offer, are adding new and critical dimensions to the work. The first of these case studies, on social networking as a learning tool, is available here. The second on experimenting with different social media to serve as a catalyst for collaboration is available here.

Transparency Talk (TT): First, let’s start with a glimpse into a day in the life of your work at the Foundation in light of all these new technologies. How is Web 2.0 changing your job as a Senior Communications Officer? How is it changing your relationship with grantees and the wider community you serve?

Susan Promislo (SP): As the former communications officer for the Pioneer Portfolio, I think I was the first staff member at the Foundation to manage a blog and one of the first to use Twitter. In part, it was because of our involvement in conferences like TED and communities like Health 2.0 that are further out in front with technology and social networking. But we also knew that a broadcast strategy was not going to work for Pioneer, which focused on finding transformative ideas from within and outside of health and health care. We had to pursue a networking strategy, had to be learning, had to be open to ideas from all avenues.

It helps affirm that we’re connecting beyond our usual suspects, and that social media has empowered us to build stronger, more diverse networks. It has helped program staff raise their profiles and gain greater presence in new fields, paving the way to build relationships with key thinkers and actors that they might not otherwise have developed.

So I learned by jumping in and feeling my way, listening to what was going on, and learning from others. And social media became not only another way to promote RWJF and our grantees, and engage others in our work, but also a way for me to deepen my learning on key issues and make valuable connections.

Twitter, in particular, has been really instructive. As I began to follow more people and have more people follow me, and see those networks blossom, I became more comfortable as a voice on the issues we care about, and as a connector who could share information that others might find valuable.

As far as our grantees, we provide resources to help them be more effective in their use of social media. But we also leverage RWJF’s platforms, voice, and reach to lend further power to their work.

TT: We have all seen and heard many examples in recent years about how social media is a perfect medium for discovering new ideas and building networks. What initiative or project comes to mind that is an exemplary case of how you have used social media for these purposes? Share a brief background about the project with us and how it unfolded.

SP: Forward Promise is a $9.5 million initiative that we recently launched to improve the health, education, and employment outcomes for boys and young men of color. RWJF believes that health is shaped as powerfully—if not more powerfully—by social factors than by the health care we receive. Things like housing, access to a good education, income, exposure to violence, and access to reliable transportation make a huge impact on your health over your lifetime.

If you look at the challenges facing young men of color in this country, the data are pretty staggering. If we don't act now to give them the opportunity to be healthy and successful, I think we're in danger of undercutting the futures of an entire generation of young men.

In shaping our strategy for Forward Promise, we didn't want to take an insular approach. We wanted to reach out to organizations and stakeholders on the ground in these communities, working on these issues and with these young men, and engage their input in shaping the strategy.

TT: What circumstances do you think made this a successful experiment? And reflecting on the experience, what was the biggest reward or outcome from this experience?

SP: Before we ever put pen to paper on a Call for Proposals, we issued a Call for Ideas to the field, relying heavily on social media. We researched and connected with a number of organizations that never either knew of RWJF, or did not view us as a potential funding source. Ultimately, we received more than 320 ideas from organizations that greatly informed and enriched the conversation and our exploration. And now we’re staying connected to them, keeping them informed of our progress and reaching back out to them with the Call for Proposals.

The Foundation has crafted a larger strategy around becoming a Web 2.0 philanthropy. What this means is that, if we run something like a Call for Ideas, at the end we can’t just thank everybody for their contributions, go back behind the curtain, and deliberate on where we move forward from there. We need to actively stay in touch with the community that we reached out to, and that shared with us so openly, and keep them informed of our progress. We need to shed light on how our strategy is forming, what our challenges might be, where we're struggling, and where their insights could continue to help us. Because I think, in doing that, it engages more people to take part in what’s ultimately a stronger movement to change the future for young men of color.

TT: What surprised you the most about the effort?

SP: What struck me was that, of those 324 groups that responded to our Call for Ideas, more than 300 had no prior funding relationship with the Foundation. It helps affirm that we’re connecting beyond our usual suspects, and that social media has empowered us to build stronger, more diverse networks. It has helped program staff raise their profiles and gain greater presence in new fields, paving the way to build relationships with key thinkers and actors that they might not otherwise have developed.

TT: What advice would you offer to foundation colleagues interested in pursuing similar work?

SP: I think, in general, we’re all pressed for time and it’s easy to see engaging in social media as being less of a priority amidst all of the competing demands; but the time you put into it ultimately does have its payoffs.

There's been a dramatic recognition on the part of the Foundation that we don't have all of the answers, and that it’s key to connect to unexpected partners and networks that might have solutions we never would have surfaced on our own. Occasionally, social media help you harness serendipity, which I love—you just come across different perspectives and resources. And it gives staff a channel for their personalities to shine through, to be more approachable and informal, which is never a bad thing in philanthropy.

--Susan Promislo

Social Networking as a Learning Tool: A Q&A with Jane Lowe
August 8, 2012

Jane Lowe is Senior Program Officer and Team Director for the Vulnerable Populations Portfolio at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Jane LoweAt the start of the year, Steve Downs kicked off our Transparency Talk blog with a great overview of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's (RWJF) social media strategy and how it has evolved since their early adoption and experimentation stage two years ago. Given the many questions grantmakers have about developing and assessing social media efforts, we are continuing to learn from the road the RWJF staff has traveled by offering a series of interviews with staff members about how social media, and more broadly, the transparency and participation they offer, are adding new and critical dimensions to the work.

Transparency Talk (TT):  First, let's start with a glimpse into a day in the life of your work at the Foundation in light of all these new technologies. How is Web 2.0 changing your job as a Team Director of the Vulnerable Populations Portfolio? How is it changing your relationship with grantees and the wider community you serve?

Jane Lowe (JL): It's been my experience that using social media has enabled me to get glimmers of ideas that I wouldn't have seen otherwise. And these ideas are coming from lots of different sources I wouldn't have heard from or necessarily known about in the past because they're outside my professional network. In general, I feel like I'm in the position to see a greater diversity of viewpoints than I have in the past.

For example, we recently hosted a gathering of foundations and practitioners all committed to improving the lives of young men of color and it was valuable to watch the stream of tweets coming from the event. Reading them in real time and seeing the range of things participants were thinking and worried about really added to the experience for me and will ultimately inform my approach to the work.

TT: We have all seen and heard many examples in recent years about how social media is a perfect vehicle for collective learning. What initiative or project comes to mind that is an exemplary case of using social media for collective learning? Share a brief background about the project with us and how it unfolded.

JL: Earlier this year we hosted a webinar that was a follow up to poll results we had released late last year. One of the findings from that poll was that physicians felt as if they're not prepared or able to address the social needs of their patients—having enough to eat, a place to live, a job to go to—and that this is getting in the way of positive health outcomes. The intention of the webinar was to bring people together to move the conversation further along: if physicians don't feel like they are capable, what specifically needs to be done?

Once the webinar wrapped up, we directed participants and the wider field to an online discussion forum to explore these ideas in greater depth and pose new ones. It was great to see such diverse engagement from people who work in medical care, public health, transportation, housing and other fields. We used Twitter to spread particularly interesting ideas and insights and invite new voices in to the discussion, and ultimately heard many perspectives we might not otherwise have uncovered.

TT: What circumstances do you think made this a successful experiment? And reflecting on the experience, what was the biggest reward or outcome from this experience?

JL: While we've been hosting webinars for quite a while now, it and the forum were really excellent vehicles to have a meaningful dialogue with people who are ready to do something, who recognize there's a problem, but who might be unsure about what can be done to address it.

It was a chance to share information about a program we currently support—Health Leads—but also to think about other solutions and to call on others to consider how they could be addressing this gap in their own work. And as I mentioned earlier, it was an opportunity to identify new people and organizations that we may not have known about in the past, but that are informed and committed to addressing an issue that's core to our work at the Foundation. The Vulnerable Populations Portfolio, in particular, relies on developing partnerships with individuals and organizations outside of the traditional worlds of health and health care—including those who work in social services, transportation, urban planning, criminal justice, and more. Social media is an important part of our strategy to learn about, reach, and engage these diverse networks.

TT: That sounds like a very positive experience.  Have you actually uncovered new grantees as a result of these kinds of convenings?  Or other critical partners?   And what, if anything, surprised you most about the experience?

JL: I don't think that I was necessarily surprised, but I think it's notable that the webinar and forum focused on an issue that's going to require a multi-sector approach to be solved. Social media is helping all of us to make connections that could not have happened in the past, to break down silos that serve as obstacles to progress. It makes me hopeful about the solutions that could result from these new relationships and connections.

TT: What advice would you offer to foundation colleagues interested in pursuing similar work?

JL: I use Twitter more than anything. One of the things I like to do is to monitor the hashtag #violence because so much of the work my team supports deals with the topic. It's fascinating to me to see the wide range of issues being discussed as well as the types of people who are participating. By monitoring it at my desk when I have a few minutes, I can understand trends, identify new research and resources, and discover new thinkers.

I tend to read more than I post because I am primarily interested in using social media to discover new thinking and to understand trends in what people are discussing. So, the best advice I can give is to tell my colleagues to go ahead and jump in, but start by listening. Identify the groups and people you want to connect with and then build your comfort level as a content contributor—but never stop listening.

--Jane Lowe

Gorillas in the Midst: Foundation Accountability in a Networked Age
February 21, 2012

Jacob Harold

(Jacob Harold is philanthropy program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. This post appears courtesy of Alliance magazine.)

Gorillas – whether or not of the 800-pound variety – are powerful creatures. The presence of a gorilla on the cover of the [September 2011] issue of Alliance was a winking reference to the sheer size of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Indeed, foundations have a bit in common with gorillas: powerful, independent and rather unaccountable.

By sharing basic information with stakeholders, organizations can avoid accusations of opacity, head off false rumours, and prevent the suddenness of a Wikileaks-style exposure. More positively, transparency allows stakeholders to feel included in an organization's work, enables benchmarking, and supports collaboration and learning.Just as a zoo designer must balance safety and freedom when creating a gorilla exhibit, so must society balance accountability and freedom when considering the role of foundations. The flexibility of the foundation structure offers space for the creativity, risk tolerance and long-term time horizons necessary to tackle society's toughest challenges. But foundations' lack of direct accountability – whether to voters, investors or customers – brings with it moral and strategic challenges that have often been discussed in these pages and in many a conference hall.

As fiscal crises cause governments to pull back funding to services and research, the demands on foundations are likely to increase. While the Gates Foundation's size presents unique challenges and opportunities, it is just one of tens of thousands of foundations – including about a hundred with more than a billion dollars in assets. As a class of organizations with masses of free capital in constrained times, foundations are certain to find themselves under the sceptical gaze of the media, policymakers, academics and the general public.

A shifting accountability context

Indeed, all organizations face a shifting accountability context. Businesses regularly encounter new expectations from consumers and investors about the social and environmental consequences of their operations. Government agencies face evolving demands for openness, citizen voice, and evidence of results. Non-profits are constantly asked for greater detail on programmes, financials and operations.

Technology has supercharged the voice of the many – enabling new forms of communication and collaborative action. The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street are not mere Twitter revolutions, but the fluent use of social media from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park more than hints at new possibilities in collective action.

Both the sources and targets of accountability are multiplying. There are simply a lot of institutions now: the US alone has 30 million businesses, 1.2 million non-profits and 80,000 government agencies. Such scale changes strategy: more actors means more variables; more variables means more factors to consider; more factors means less certainty.

Add in the upheavals brought by globalization, terrorism, demographic shifts and climate change and we must ask if the top-down regulatory structures that defined governance in the 20th century will prove sufficient. Centralized government action is surely as important as ever; regulation is here to stay. No organization should use this flux as an excuse to abdicate its fundamental responsibilities. But these changes have resulted in great confusion. How should organizations respond? How do we integrate formal, top-down regulation with distributed, bottom-up accountability?

Luckily our governance mechanisms are catching up with our changing world. We are still early in this transition, but I argue there are four behaviours that are proving necessary for any business, government agency or non-profit to maintain a social licence in this dynamic environment. Together, these behaviours form what University of California political scientist Lee Drutman and I have called the 'new governance bargain'. By fulfilling their part in this new, implicit arrangement, organizations can retain permission from society to operate without excessive regulatory constraints. What is more, these behaviours can fuel increased effectiveness by enabling organizations to learn better, react faster, and better understand their context. Each of the four behaviours is directly applicable to the unique context of foundations.

Transparency

The first behaviour is transparency. By sharing basic information with stakeholders, organizations can avoid accusations of opacity, head off false rumours, and prevent the suddenness of a Wikileaks-style exposure. More positively, transparency allows stakeholders to feel included in an organization's work, enables benchmarking, and supports collaboration and learning. For foundations, the practices outlined in the Foundation Center's Glasspockets.org site offer a start towards systematic transparency. Tools like Creative Commons licensing and standardized metadata promise new forms of open productivity. At times, of course, foundations must exercise discretion – especially if transparency compromises a strategy, as can be the case when your grantees face an active opponent. But in general foundations can and should move from a stance of opting into transparency when convenient towards a stance of opting out when necessary.

Measurement of multiple bottom lines

The next behaviour is the measurement of multiple bottom lines. We see the emergence of non-financial measures across society: corporations sharing carbon emissions data, countries dropping GDP in favour of 'Gross National Happiness', and non-profits proclaiming that the administrative cost ratio tells nothing of their impact. Foundations with rigorous strategies and evaluation systems can easily do the same. Their measurement systems can and should go beyond endowment size and payout ratio to systematic tracking of the quantity and nature of the work done by foundations and their grantees. As the work of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation has shown, a good measurement system can help offer both grantmakers and grantees clarity, insight, and – ultimately – greater effectiveness.

Proactive engagement with stakeholders

The third behaviour is proactive engagement with stakeholders. Decisions made without reference to stakeholders often elicit fury– and, if one isn't careful, a boycott, recall election, protest or lawsuit. But stakeholder engagement offers far more than a mechanism for avoiding angry response. Consider the extensive use of focus groups in consumer product development, the role of polling in politics, or the ways that non-profits use social media to engage their communities. Foundations can and must engage with their stakeholders; as the title of a recent Grantmakers for Effective Organizations report put it, 'Do Nothing About Me Without Me'.

Given foundations' independent structures, such constituent engagement requires proactive efforts. The Center for Effective Philanthropy's Grantee Perception Report offers a simple, powerful tool to elicit stakeholder feedback. Innovations like the Peery Foundation's live Twitter broadcast of a board meeting or the Packard Foundation's use of a public wiki for strategy development around agricultural pollution promise new ways to learn from our communities.

Collaboration

The final behaviour is collaboration. In a complex, interconnected world, it is a rare organization that can hope to solve a problem in isolation. Complex problems often require the specialization made possible by division of labour and the reach made possible by cross-organizational economies of scale. Collaboratives like the Climate Works Foundation, STRIVE and the True North Fund offer new models of aligned strategy powered by common goals, pooled capital and shared measurement systems. Foundations' unique perspective on a field and ability to convene key players enable them not just to participate in collaborations but to catalyse them. And their privileged position is much more likely to yield results if grantmakers apply it humbly, fully aware of the power dynamics inherent in any funding relationship.

Together, these four behaviours offer a framework for foundations to be more effective while avoiding unproductive government intervention. They are not simple boxes to be checked: each is an attitude that must be embedded across foundation activities and constantly refreshed. You cannot dial in to a new social contract.

Over the next few years, we will start to learn whether these behaviours are enough. We may well discover they are not and we will have to reconsider the top-down regulation of foundations. But for now, instead of caging our gorillas, let's set them free – under the watchful eye of us all.

-- Jacob Harold

A Bifocal Lens: The Value of Investing in Both Networks and Organizations
November 16, 2011

(Paul Connolly is Chief Client Services Officer of TCC Group, a 33 year-old consulting firm that provides strategy, evaluation, and capacity-building services to foundations, nonprofit organizations, and corporate community involvement programs. In a previous post for Transparency Talk, he wrote about the Packard Foundation's "see through" filing cabinet.)

Paul Connolly

What do the Arab Spring uprisings, the Tea Party, Al Qaeda, and Occupy Wall Street have in common?  They all stem from flexible networks of people and groups, rather than just a single organization. And, they all have powerfully influenced society lately. As technology has enabled more connection and coordination, networks are playing a greater role in tackling social and environmental problems, galvanizing change, and enhancing civil society.  At the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations' "Growing Social Impact in a Networked World" conference a few weeks ago, funders discussed how they are changing their perspectives and practices to support and participate in networks.

One foundation leader remarked that observing a network is like looking at a Monet painting: up close, the brushstrokes can be blurry and seem disconnected, but when you stand back, the power of the full and nuanced picture becomes clear. Another speaker advised that funders need to view networks with a different type of lens than what they use for organizations. Networks tend to have more distributed ownership and expertise, less linear decision-making processes, more fluid boundaries, and results that are harder to measure. Funders therefore need to tailor how they assist networks, such as by investing at multiple levels, providing for additional improvisation, letting go of some control, and focusing less on causal attribution of outcomes.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for example, has provided funding to foster a widespread network of activists across the nation to decrease childhood obesity by improving eating habits and increasing physical activity. In doing so, the foundation has learned that shifting from a mostly one-way broadcast mode to a more robust and interactive dialogue with constituents who are connected to the coalition has required more effort, openness, and trust. Foundation staff members have strived to listen actively to network participants and create authentic feedback loops — both online and in-person — to help advance the collaborative movement.

Likewise, the Jim Joseph Foundation has nurtured Reboot, which aims to engage a younger generation in a vibrant Jewish life through a selective network of a few hundred culturally influential Jewish people. The Foundation's strategy was to get the right mix of people in the right space and then allow for serendipity. With a bold over-arching goal to steer the way, it backs the network's process and does not try to micro-manage the specific means that members choose or the content they produce.

The Packard Foundation studied their existing portfolio of grantees and realized they already had a broad spectrum of models, about a third being networks for wide-ranging causes, with varying types of needs than organizations. As Packard Program Director Stephanie McAuliffe exclaimed, "Our grantee The Ocean Conservancy did not want to strengthen their organization's brand, but the ocean's brand." The Packard Foundation has improved its own network approach through an online wiki, transparently sharing data about certain programs and engaging others in their strategy development and evaluation work. [More about the Packard wiki at Transparency Talk.]

Although networks have many distinctive features, they also coincide with organizations extensively. In fact, many networks are actually collections of organizations, or at least are comprised of individuals who see their participation through a specific organizational perspective. So, networks can be both capable in their own right, as well as reflect the performance of the particular organizations involved. TCC Group's research on nonprofits and coalitions have found that the highest performing ones share such central characteristics as distributed leadership, inclusive mindsets and practices, cross-fertilized programs, learning cultures, and adaptability.

Specifically, we found that the strongest nonprofit organizations:

  • have a clear vision,
  • understand community needs and services well,
  • are deeply engaged and forge alliances with external stakeholders,
  • encourage reflective inquiry, and
  • amplify their impact by not only expanding their own programs, but also disseminating replicable practices and models and by influencing policies and systems.

Our study of coalitions for The California Endowment determined that the most successful ones:

  • have a lucid mutual purpose and value proposition,
  • collaborate and manage conflict well,
  • conduct ongoing assessment,
  • have transparent decision-making processes, and
  • are action-oriented.

Far-sighted grantmakers see that scaling social impact will not happen just by expanding high-performing nonprofit organizations, one at a time. Strong networks will be increasingly needed, too, and their respective efforts will intersect more and more. Meanwhile, nonprofit organizations are still the predominant vehicle for receiving philanthropic support and many networks involve sets of them. To view organizations and networks — the individual brushstrokes as well as the full painting — clearly, rather than through two different sets of optics, funders need better bifocal lenses. Without them, they will be hampered by fuzzy vision and blind spots, reducing their potential to magnify positive change.

There is much more to discover about harnessing the combined potential of organizations and networks. What tools, frameworks, and training are needed to sharpen the needed bifocal vision?  How can we learn more about organizational and network effectiveness and their intersections — and do a better job applying what we already know? How could grantmakers support networks' efforts to build superior shared learning systems and performance measurements within particular fields? With better answer to these questions, funders can help increase social innovation and impact.

— Paul Connolly

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  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

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